The ‘war’ at Otodo-Gbame shantytown went out of control on Sunday night as many got drowned while trying to escape. By Monday when Isioma Madike arrived at the ‘warfront’, corpses were still floating, with members of the community in total disarray
Otodo-Gbame is a coastal slum in Eti-Osa Local Government Area of Lagos State. It is accessed through Ikate Roundabout, Lekki Phase 1. The community has been in the news since 2014, though for the wrong reasons. By Sunday, November 13, the shantytown has been reduced to mere rubbles by what the people described as ‘war’ against them. As at Tuesday when this reporter left the community, the ‘war’ was still ragging, accompanied by massive destruction of houses and loss of lives.
However, the journey to Otodo-Gbame on Monday was both duty call and adventure. But going to the ‘warfront’ was not that easy. It was as rough as the waters that surround the neighbourhood. At the foot of the road leading to the waterside community were some young men, who busied themselves with sips of Ogogoro (local gin), looking tired like destitutes.
On siting this reporter who was walking towards them to ask for direction, the tall, lanky one in the middle, who should be about 35 years of age, stood to enquire in a wacked voice with deep Egun accent. After explaining my mission, they demanded my identity card to ascertain my true personality. Satisfied with what they saw, they then mandated one of them to lead the way through the deep, rough water via paddled canoe to avoid being attacked by the rampaging ‘enemies’ who they claimed had taken sentry all around their territory.
Right at the heart of the enclave, was evidence of a people still in shock, distraught but united in grief. Indeed, enormous sorrow hung in the air around the community, where over 17 people had allegedly been killed.
In a semicircle at the centre of the ruins where the people gathered with their arms akimbo and looking morose to keep vigil was Ahisu Celestine, one of the youth leaders in the community. Celestine is a graduate of mechanical engineering from the Lagos State University, Ojo. “We had been living amicably for centuries without problems,” he said.
“These people have been our age long neighbours until recently when the Elegushi family (an influential Yoruba traditional Chieftaincy family) and one Ajoke Adebayo, who owns Children International School (CIS) within the environs started reclaiming and selling our land. That was the genesis of this whole crisis.
“Before then, we shared the same culture until suddenly one of their princes and another identified simply as Wasiu came and gave us a one week notice to vacate the vicinity. That notice, however, was not signed by anybody. The illegal notice had not even expired when they mobilised thugs accompanied by the police to unleash mayhem on us. The set our house ablaze! That was on September 17, 2014.”
After the attack, according to Celestine, the community ran to Justice Empowerment Initiative (JEI), which contacted a lawyer that eventually instituted a case against them in a Lagos Magistrate’s Court. “We got an injunction from the court and we were very happy and hopeful that the matter would be settled amicably. But that was not to be. Surprisingly, one Justice Kasali just struck out the case. This was swiftly followed by an order to demolish all shantytowns along coastal areas by the state authorities.
“They gave that order without stating how and where we would be relocated. Is that right? When that happened, we staged a protest, not once, but twice with the help of JEI and thereafter took the state government to court. There was a ruling to the effect that nobody should tamper with any community in the state’s coastal areas including the government pending the final determination of the case,” Celestine narrated.
Yet, the trouble appeared to have just stated. Otodo-Gbame people, suspecting a hidden agenda, slept with one eye closed ever since. For the recent upheaval, they are pointing fingers to their perceived enemies, the Elegushi family in connivance with Adebayo, who they claimed instigated the ‘rough boys’ to conquer them.
Last week, Doko Wusu, a chief in the community, said: “Another problem started. They came in droves and started collecting money forcefully from our people and we had to run to the Police Area Commander within the locality. He invited us all and we signed an agreement to maintain peace in the neighbourhood.”
Incidentally, the peace accord was not to last as another upheaval soon followed. The people claimed to have started noticing strange faces shortly after the signing of the peace accord from the neighbouring community into their territory. Information, they claimed, later reached them that the “bad boys” in the area are bringing in other boys to attack them.
“That was how this latest crisis started, said Kpose Christian, a 50-year-old native of the community. It started on Sunday about 11.30 in the night. The following morning, our Baale, Dansu Hunkpe, had to call the nearest police station at Ilasan; the Divisional Crime Officer (DCO) was forced to come with some policemen. But, shockingly, they called the Baale aside, asked him a few questions, and whisked him away. Till now (Tuesday) he is yet to return to us.
“Since the disappearance of our Baale, it’s been ‘war’ without end; morning, afternoon and night on a daily basis. The people are not Yoruba youths as speculated in the media but hired thugs supported by the police that are supposed to be neutral and defend the defenceless. They took us by surprise; at night. We only heard them said: Egun people go; this is Nigeria, as if we are no longer Nigerians. Our ancestors migrated from Badagry; we should be treated like other Nigerians and not like outcasts.”
Since then it has been blood, tears and wailing in hitherto peaceful community. A middle-aged woman, who gave her name simply as Azin, with the three ornaments held around her waist by a wrapper, said she lost all her property to the inferno as police and hoodlums allegedly attacked the community.
“The cloth I have on is now my only possession,” she said. “The government should speak now if this wasn’t a grand style to crush us in our ancestral land. The governor ought to look upon us with pity. Our lives have been shattered,” she cried.
Azin is not alone in this anguish. Other resident said they had never seen where the police behaved so “irresponsibly”. They said the police did not only take sides, but were setting fire to their houses under the supervision of their enemies.
“The police were the ones burning the houses. If you want to settle dispute between two people you shouldn’t add more to the problem. The policemen are from the state government. We want to be proven wrong on this. People have disagreement in the society. In this instance, it’s the Elegushi boys and we, the Eguns. People can quarrel and fight anytime. But the police should settle the dispute not to burn the houses themselves. We have evidence.
“They say police is our friend. Is that the way a friend settles dispute? After burning our houses, where do they want us to stay with our kids and wives? The schools, the churches and mosques have all been reduced to rubbles. People are dying.
“When has the government started demolition of shanties by night? What the government ought to do is to plan to upgrade our slums to fit into its mega plan. They know how to come to the slum to get votes. We also pay land use charges to the government. We do not deserve this,” they chorused.
Another youth leader in the community, 28-year-old Kunnu Rende, said many people including children drowned in the confusion that occurred on the night of the demolition. “The police gave them (hoodlums) torch; they broke into our homes and stole all our possessions before reducing the houses to rubbles. We lost laptops, flat screen televisions, money, and foodstuffs. Our children were terrified. About 17 people drowned in the water that night. Many of them are still missing. They were mostly tenants who could not swim.”
Kpose similarly said she and many residents now sleep on their rag tag canoes as they have no other place to go. “They came to demolish our homes. People died, including children and women. I lost my house, all my cloths and everything I own. We have nowhere to sleep. At night, we sleep in our canoes floating in the Lagoon,” she said.
When contacted, the Elegushi Royal Family, said the allegations by residents of Otodo-Gbame community on the attacks and demolition of the slum settlement, are only a figment of their imagination. “It is untrue and unfair to us.”
The Secretary to the royal family who responded on behalf of the respected chieftaincy family, Chief Muritala Elegushi, said the family does not only abhor violence but has also lived in peace with its neighbours, both far and near, for many decades without any history of conflict. According to the chief, even though the family has a judgement declaring it the authentic owner of the landed property, which he alleged had been ‘colonised’ by the community, the leadership of the royal family has always allowed the constituted authorities to take appropriate action without resorting to self-help.
He said: “We are law-abiding and civil. We always like to protect our name and that is the legacy left behind by our forefathers, particularly the immediate past royal father, Oba Yekinni Elegushi. That is the same style of leadership the present Kabiyesi, Oba Saheed Elegushi, has adopted.
“I think the public should know that the Lagos State Government had threatened to demolish the community, and so, why should anyone still accuse us of being behind any attack? That is not fair and cannot be true in any way. We are peaceful and law-abiding and will never resort to self-help to claim our rights.
“So, we will continue to advocate peaceful co-existence in the same manner our forefathers lived, which enabled these usurpers to be laying claim to what rightly belongs to us. Or how could you come all the way from Badagry and say you own a community in Ikate?” he asked.
The reverberating crisis in Otodo-Gbame community had taken a twist when the Lagos State government allegedly cleared the shantytown to make way for luxury redevelopment. Reuters had quoted Amnesty International as saying that over 300,000 inhabitants of the area risked eviction and could be left homeless after the exercise.
The Nigerian Slum and Informal Settlement Federation (NSISF), a network of activists working in Nigerian slum communities, also said the evictees, many of whom have lived on the shores of the lake for more than a century were forced to take to boats on the Lagos Lagoon for their safety. Unfortunately, however, many of them did not live to tell their vile story.
“With over 30,000 residents of Otodo-Gbame already homeless there is presently a humanitarian disaster in the community,” said Andrew Maki, co-director of Lagos-based legal campaign group. “It is almost unthinkable to calculate the implications of that number growing tenfold to 300,000. Where would they sleep? Who will feed them?”
Maki said bulldozers had arrived at Otodo-Gbame, known as “Ikate back gate” on that fateful morning after the residents had been told by the police that they had three hours to vacate their homes before demolition began. He said this indicated that the demolition of the community might be part of a broader “slum clearing” effort.
Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State had announced the “demolition of all the shanties” around the creeks and waterways of Lagos State on October 9, citing public health and safety concerns. Following the governor’s announcement, the state’s Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Steve Ayorinde, said the demolition formed part of the government’s policy of “removal of environmental infractions and nuisances across the state.”
That explanation was, however, not enough to deter Maki, who pointed to a court order restraining the state from carrying the planed demotion. “Despite a High Court order to stop evictions issued on November 7, more than 40 slum communities who live on Lagos Lagoon now face eviction,” Maki said, adding, “This forced eviction makes abundantly clear that Ambode’s threat to demolish all waterfront communities across Lagos State is very real.”
In recent years, the area around Otodo-Gbame had attracted investors who built waterside apartments and commercial districts, pushing out fishing communities, according to a statement by JEI. In another statement last month, NSISF rejected the government’s characterisation of the waterfront communities as “the abode of miscreants/street-urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers.
“We contribute meaningfully to the economy of Lagos; indeed, the urban poor are the engine of the economy. We pay taxes, levies, rates and charges to the local and state governments,” it added.
However, the rights groups insisted that officials needed to provide alternative accommodation for residents and investigate why police and a Lagos agency had destroyed their housing despite a court ban until there had been a hearing. “The authorities involved in this destruction are in flagrant violation of the law,” it said in a statement.
However, police have denied claims that they destroyed any building in Otodo-Gbame community. They also denied that they played a role in the reported drowning of people who the community claimed had run into water after the policemen allegedly opened fire on them.
Attempts to get Ayorinde to confirm or deny government involvement in the destruction of Otodo-Gbame community were not successful as he neither picked nor return the calls put through to his lines. He also did not respond to the texts sent to his numbers.
Nonetheless, the Lagos State House of Assembly has set-up a committee to investigate alleged killings and destruction of property in the coastal community. This followed a protest on Tuesday by the Otodo-Gbame people at Alausa, the state seat of government. They claimed during the protest that over 800 structures and many lives were wasted during the invasion of their community.
According to the Speaker of the House, Mudashiru Obasa, the committee, to be headed by the Majority Leader of the House, Hon. Sanai Agunbiade, will investigate the catastrophe and proffer solutions that will help nip the festering crisis in the bud.
Before now, the world was alarmed by what medical authorities claimed was an outbreak of a strange disease in Otodo-Gbame community. That was early this year, precisely around January and February. About 25 children, who were aged between three months and three years, reportedly died of what later came to be known as Fatal Febrile Rash Illnesses (FRI). The peculiar symptom of the disease is boil which develops on the body of the children. They would later die within three to four days of contraction.
Otodo-Gbame, according to the narrative, was founded by people who came from Ajido in Badagry area of Lagos. The community is said to have been in existence for more than 200 years. As fishermen, the ocean had attracted the people, and following their successful sojourn on the water, they decided to live in the area and build a community.
Today, the shantytown is populated by more than 300,000 persons of different races, including Yorubas, Igbos and Hausas. Otodo-Gbame, according to the natives, means a community sited in swampy area. It is an Ogu (corruptly spelt and pronounced Egun) language. Many, apart from the indigenes of Otodo-Gbame, are anxious to see how the state government plans to settle this squabble that has threatened the peace of the mega city.